WEDNESDAY, MAY 14, 2003
DEBATE I, WHEN THE LYIN WAS EASY: Already, a Culture of Lying surrounded Bush as he stood on that stage with Al Gore. The hopefuls were staging their first debate, on October 3, 2000, in Boston. Governor Bush, one minute rebuttal, Jim Lehrer said, after Gore answered the evenings first question. Candidate Bush made his first remarks. And he lied right in Jim Lehrers face:
BUSH (10/3/00): Well, we do come from different places. And I come from West Texas. Ive been a governor. A governor is the chief executive officer and learns how to set agendas. And I think youre going to find the difference reflected in our budgets. I want to take one-half of the surplus and dedicate it to Social Security, one-quarter of the surplus for important projects, and I want to send one-quarter of the surplus back to the people who pay the bills. I want everybody who pays taxes to have their tax rates cut.Was it true? Did Bush want to use one-quarter of the surplus for important projects and send one-quarter of the surplus back to the people who pay the bills? Actually, no, he did not. Bushs budget called for a $1.3 trillion tax cutand for $474 billion in new spending (ten years). In fact, his tax cut was about three times as big as his new spending proposals. So why was Bush saying that his new spending equaled the size of his tax cut? According to Gore, Bushs tax cuts were so large that they left little money for important new projects. So Bush had crafted a bogus sound-bite which made it seem that this just wasnt so.
For the record, everyone in the national press knew that Bush was dissembling. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman had spent three columns on the topic; the most recent had appeared just two days earlier. In late September, Bush had appeared on CNNs Moneyline. On Moneyline, hed lied right in Willow Bays face. Krugman expressed his amazement:
KRUGMAN (10/1/00): First, Mr. Bush talked about the budgetTheres about $4.6 trillion of surplus projected, he declared He then went on to say: I want some of the money, nearly a trillion, to go to projects like prescription drugs for seniors. Money to strengthen the military to keep the peace. Ive got some views about education around the world. I want toyou know, Ive got some money in there for the environment.Krugman listed two other groaners from Bushs appearance. [W]hat Mr. Bush said to that national television audience simply wasnt true, he complained. And he noted a strange phenomenon. Moneyline would never let a C.E.O. get away with claiming to spend twice as much on research as the sum announced in the companys own press release, Krugman said. But when Mr. Bush declared that he would spend twice as much on new programs as the sum announced by his own campaign, the interviewer said nothing.
Krugman expressed his surprise at the general way the press was letting Bush dissemble. But he may as well have saved his breath. Within days, Bushs dissembling would reach comic new heightsand the press would continue to snore, burp and slumber. By the time of that first debate, a Culture of Lying surrounded Bush. And scripted members of the national press corps seemed to know that they must never notice.
The problem began at the start of the debate, when Gore challenged Bushs tax cut proposal. Gore offered his basic critique of the Texans plan:
GORE (10/3/00): His tax cut plan, for example, raises the question of whether its the right choice for the country. And let me give you an example of what I mean. Under Governor Bushs tax cut proposal, he would spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent than all of the new spending that he proposes for education, health care, prescription drugs and national defense, all combined. Now, I think those are the wrong priorities.Bush had proposed $382 billion in new spending in those four areas. How much would the top one percent get in tax cuts? That question was slightly problematic, depending on how one scored the benefits of Bushs proposed estate tax repeal. But as Ron Brownstein explained in the Los Angeles Times, if only half the estate tax cuts goes to the top one percent, Gores statement was accurate, with twenty billion to spare. But no matter. The Bush campaign would swing into action, pretending Gore had used phony numbers. Peddling absurdly fake numbers themselves, the Bush camp would call Gore a liar.
Consummate clowning would be involved in the effort to shoot down Gores statement. But it all began with a blunder by Bush. The morning after that first debate, Bush appeared on Good Morning America. Asked about Gores one percent claim, Bush seemed to say that the claim had been accurate. Charles Gibson had to ask his question two times. But the second time, he got Bush to answer:
GIBSON (10/4/00): You said all of that. But is he incorrect in saying that you would give to the top one percent of income earners in this country in tax relief more than you would spend on health care, prescription drugs, education, and national defense combined?To all appearances, Bush had said that Gores claim was factually accurate. Clearly, thats what GMA thought he had said. We heard Governor Bush just say that Vice President Gore was right on the amount that hed be spending for the richest Americans, Diane Sawyer said, a few moments later.
Within hours, though, that had changed. By the afternoon of October 4, Candidate Bush was trashing Gore hard, saying that his claims were invented. In an interview with the Baltimore Suns Karen Hosler, he basically called Gore a liar:
HOSLER: [Bush] spoke disparagingly of figures Gore gave regarding Medicare. I dont know where he drug up those numbers, said Bush in his Texas twang, probably the same place he drug up the numbers on rich peoplehe made it up.In fact, everyone knew where Gore drug up his numbers. They came from a study by Citizens for Tax Justiceand from the proposed spending figures on Bushs own web site. But no matter. That same day, Bush took the same approach in an interview with Darrel Rowland of the Columbus Dispatch:
ROWLAND: Vice President Gore will make up numbers, Bush said. When I talked about fuzzy math, I meant it.By the afternoon of October 4, Bush was at a Columbus rally, accusing Gore of faking his numbersand offering an absurdly phony number of his own. Tom Raum described the scene for the Associated Press:
RAUM (10/4/00): [A]t a rally and question session at a suburban Columbus, Ohio, high school, Bush disputed Gores debate assertion that a disproportionate share of Bushs $1.3 trillion tax cut plan would go to the nations wealthiest 1 percent.Comically, the crowd was yelling no fuzzy math as Bush announced his fake number.
Where did Bush get that remarkably low number? Readers can probably guess. Reacting quickly, the Bush campaign had begun peddling numbers drawn from Bushs income-tax cuts only. Bushs tax cut proposal had several major parts; income tax cuts were only one part of the proposal. But Bush presented numbers from that one part of his plan while pretending to discuss the plan as a whole. This left out the estate-tax repeal, which would benefit the super-rich disproportionately. Beyond that, Bushs numbers applied to the year 2005before many of his income-tax cuts for the highest earners would have taken effect. In short, the numbers he cited were laughably phony. But on that afternoons Inside Politics, he tossed the fake number at poor Candy Crowley. The unsuspecting CNN scribe mentioned Gores claim about the top one percent:
CROWLEY: [Gore] kept saying, Youre not answering my question. Youre not denying what Im saying. Do you deny it?Snore. Bushs numbers all referred to the cuts in income tax only, and they referred to the year 2005. But as Bush and crew tossed these numbers around, this distinction was never offered. They offered the public a set of fake numbersand they said it meant Gore was a liar.
And yes, thats just what the Bush campaign did. It takes guts to throw fake numbers aroundand say they show that the other guys lying. But thats just what the Bush camp did, as the press corps sat back and watched. On Sunday, October 8, for example, Karen Hughes appeared on Fox News Sunday. Now unlike Al Gore, Governor Bush doesnt just make up facts, she said, preparing herself to make up some facts. He wants to make certain that what he says is in fact accurate. She then rattled off her inaccurate numbers. At the risk of boring you all with too much detail, but let me tell what you what that one percentthat tax cut for the top one percent of taxpayers will cost $223 billion over the next ten years, she said. And she offered another absurdly fake numberthe $9.9 trillion in total federal spending that would occur in the next ten years. Gore had said that Bushs new spending was less than his cuts for the top one percent. But Hughes feigned confusionand called Gore a faker. Now I know the vice presidents been in Washington for a long time, she pandered. But most Americans can understand theres a big difference between $223 billion, with a B, and $9.9 trillion with a T. So that is a completely erroneous statement by the vice president, and I think he should be held accountable for misstating important facts. Showing a bit of steely professionalism, Foxs panel avoided laughing out loudand, of course, they avoided noting the absurdity of Hughes presentation. On CNNs Late Edition, meanwhile, Karl Rove was peddling those fake numbers too. For the record, Bush was pushing another set of fake numbers at this timenumbers he would use in Bush-Gore Debate III. Under my plan, if you makethe top, the wealthy people pay 62 percent of the taxes today. Afterwards, they pay 64 percent. This is a fair plan, he said. By afterwards, Bush meant in 2005, and the numbers referred to income tax only. In short, all the numbers Bush employed were deliberately meant to deceive.
In short, a Culture of Lying was already present when Bush and Gore staged their first debate. In the first words out of his mouth, Bush misstated his own budget planjust as he had been doing for months. And starting on the very next day, he peddled a set of phony statisticsnumbers that could only mislead those who heard them. All the while, he told the public that it was Gore who was making up facts.
Your press corps took it like champions. They offered a string of polite analyses which treated these phony numbers with respect. In the Chicago Tribune, for example, Monica Davey said that both [Bush and Gore] may be correct because they start with different assumptionscrucial, conflicting assumptions that few voters will ever hear much about. And what exactly was Bushs assumption? Bush offers a different accounting, which he calls real numbers, Davey said. Bushs figure only counts the effects of his income-tax cuts. It doesnt take into account the effect of repeal of the estate tax. So Bushs different assumption was thisif someone says your tax plan favors the rich, you can adopt a different assumption, in which you only discuss the part of your plan which doesnt do what is charged! So it went as pundits struggled to pretend that Bush wasnt lying. Meanwhile, many reporters were simply deceived. On October 5, for example, Bush went stumping for votes in Wisconsin. The next day, Dave Umhoefer limned his remarks in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
UMHOEFER (10/6/00): Bush, who in the eyes of some of his backers responded too politely to Vice President Al Gores attacks on his tax plans during their first debate, offered numerical and flesh-and-blood evidence of the fairness of his proposal. Under it, he said:Most of the tax relief was for those on the bottom rung? That, of course, was complete, screaming nonsense. And all those numbers were patently phony, though Umhoefer probably didnt know it. Neither, of course, did Wisconsin voters who read the fake facts the next day.
Meanwhile, the press corps scurried hither and yon. As youll recall, they were deeply convinced that Gore was a Liar, and they were eager to let the world know it. They had just spent several weeks on lunatic tales about doggy-pills and old union songs. Now they worked themselves into a lather about a school desk down in Florida. A Culture of Lying already prevailed when Bush replied to Jim Lehrer that night. But the press played an active role in maintaining that culturea role which they play to this day
TOMORROW: The press corps simply ignored certain lies. And others, the press corps made up.
LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER: At the Indianapolis Star, editorial page editor Andrea Neal was convinced. On October 26, she unburdened herself for her readers:
NEAL (10/26/00): Democratic attacks on George W. Bushs tax plan drive me crazy During the final debate, Al Gore said of Bushs tax plan, If everyone here in this audience was dead-on in the middle of the middle class, then the tax cuts would be less than the tax cut his plan would give to just one member of that top, wealthiest 1 percent.Neal rattled off Bushs phony numbers, slamming Gore for demagoguery and for his infuriating misstatements. At the Atlanta Journal, meanwhile, Gore had been savaged way back in September:
EDITORIAL (9/8/00): Vice President Al Gore has chosen to distort his opponents proposals, which is a polite way of saying that the Democrat who would be president is deliberately deceiving the American people. Perhaps at first, before numerous independent analyses showed who benefited and how much, Gore could have been excused for jumping to the conclusion that the Bush tax cut proposal would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor. But no factual, honest rendering of Bushs proposal can be summarized as suchIn this variant, it wasnt the top one percent (those making over $319,000) who went from 62 to 64 percent; it was those making over $100,000. Apparently, the editors got that phony fact from Georgias own Ralph Reed, who had cited in earlier on Crossfire. But whichever phony fact was employed, the Profound Conclusion was always the same; Gore was a demagogue who was deliberately deceiving the American people. Endlessly deceived by the Bush campaign, willing journalistslambs to the slaughterused their fake facts to call Gore a liar. If you can find a single journalist who ever complained, wed like you to say who that is.
The Daily update
STILL HASNT NOTICED: Many people are starting to notice. According to Jonathan Chait (who supported Bush on Iraq), Bushs claims should never be taken at face value (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/13/03). After all, the arguments he uses to justify his domestic agenda are shot through with deceit. Indeed, its also true that a few elements of the administrations evidence against Iraq have turned out to be outright hoaxes, Chait says. The key thing to remember about WMD? Believing that they really existed doesnt require taking Bush at his word. In yesterdays Post, E. J. Dionne also noticed. Its now documentable that President Bush and his lieutenants have a rather flexible definition of what it means to level with the American people, he said. But lingering over her latest dessert, and advising her pals about home renovations, Margaret Carlson still hasnt noticed. Last week, she left lunch early to tape an hour with Russert. Sugar-shock may be the real villain here. But heres what the brilliant sage told us:
RUSSERT: George W. Bush beatable?Of course, Indiana voters trusted Bush because Neal helped him peddle those fake, phony numbers. Needless to say, Carlson remembered to slime HRC as she praised her authentic, trusted leader.